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China's wealthy ponder whether to help others

Chen Guangbiao gave out flowers in 2009 for victims of the 2008 Sichuan quake. Even in light of natural disaters, wealthy Chinese citizens have been reluctant to embrace philanthropy.
Chen Guangbiao gave out flowers in 2009 for victims of the 2008 Sichuan quake. Even in light of natural disaters, wealthy Chinese citizens have been reluctant to embrace philanthropy.

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So far, only a handful of the roughly 50 invitees to the dinner have replied publicly.

One of the few, Zong Qing Hou - a beverage industry magnate and China's richest man, according to Forbes - said he won't attend because of a scheduling conflict, but added that he disagrees with the underlying principles. The rich in China can do more good, he explained to a Chinese newspaper, by creating jobs and enterprises that grow the economy than by donating to the poor.

No one in the country, however, has responded as publicly and loudly as Chen Guangbiao, a multimillionaire who has been one of China's most outspoken philanthropists.

Chen said he felt anger and shame after hearing from the Gates Foundation that many invitees called to make sure they would not have to donate. That same night, he said, he woke up at 1 a.m. and penned a 1,070-word letter on his company's website announcing his plan to leave his entire fortune - estimated at $440 million - to causes such as education and environmental protection groups.

The decision, he acknowledged, breaks with the Chinese tradition of leaving wealth for your descendants and also with Confucian values of first taking care of your family, and then your country. But he says his wife and children have been supportive.

"My parents left me nothing," said Chen, 42, in an interview at his vast Beijing apartment. "I made this fortune entirely on my own, so I have no fear for my son's future. He will find his way as well."

Chen grew up in Jiangsu province, in a family so poor that two siblings died from malnutrition, he said. At 10, he paid for his schooling by lugging two wooden barrels of water into town each day and selling cups for a fraction of a cent. As an adult, he made his fortune by recycling such materials as concrete and steel.

By Shanghai analyst Rupert Hoogewerf's calculation, the average age of China's new breed of millionaires is 39, at least 15 years younger than their foreign counterparts. "They are still in wealth-creation mode, focused more on expanding their own business, especially because the economy is growing so fast," said Hoogewerf, who tracks China's wealthy.

Some entrepreneurs also don't want to draw attention to their riches, lest they prompt questions . According to a Credit Suisse-sponsored report this month, China's wealthy may be hiding up to $1.4 trillion in corruption-tainted money.

In Chen's case, online commentators began questioning his motives and the purity of his money almost immediately. To explain the hesitation of his fellow tycoons, Chen quoted a Chinese proverb:

"The bird who sticks his head out always gets shot."

Chen's gung-ho enthusiasm for giving is viewed as somewhat eccentric. In an hourlong interview, he talked not only about giving his money to help society, but also his desire to end his life by taking sleeping pills before he gets old so as to avoid becoming a burden.


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